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Tuesday, September 02, 2014


Steve Cole's thoughts on Operation Market Garden:

This was a battle in September 1944. The general idea was to drop three divisions of paratroopers in the Netherlands to grab a series of bridges, then quickly roll a column of tanks up the road, moving past the surprised Germans to cross the Rhine at Arnhem and reach a point where Montgomery could dash to Berlin and win the war. The operation failed, a division of British paratroops was all but wiped out, and the Allies ended up with a blame game that has never ended. The only gain was a very narrow piece of land that went nowhere but was surrounded on three sides by Germans. What went wrong?

1. The whole idea of the dash to Berlin was not workable. The Allies had already proven just how far their supply lines could go (not that far), the Germans were unlikely to ignore the rapidly moving British tanks since nothing would be guarding their flanks, and it was very unlikely that those tanks would just roll into a major enemy city like they had in the friendlier streets of Paris. The whole operation (even if one assumes that Montgomery would accept the American idea for a shorter attack that just captured the Ruhr industrial zone) was badly planned.

2. The airplanes that would drop the paratroops and haul the gliders had been hauling supplies for weeks, and had not been able to practice formation flying. That meant that all flying had to be done in daylight, and the distance meant that each plane could only make one flight per day. The airborne divisions needed two flights (or more) to get all of their troops on the ground, meaning that only half of the paratroops could land on the first day. That meant that not all of the key objectives could be captured on the first day, and some of them became much harder to capture after the Germans figured out that something was up and started guarding everything. But even a second trip would have landed eight hours after the first, and the Germans would surely have not been idle in those hours. In the end, the plan was too ambitious, and landing a carpet of paratroops 60 miles through the German lines was too much for the available forces. (The original plan by Montgomery would have landed small groups of paratroops on top of key objectives. The problem was that the Germans would have quickly wiped out such small groups that could not support each other.) The only real way to make the plan work was for the ground offensive to start a week or two earlier and drive halfway to Arnhem before the drop.

3. The supply situation did not support a major offensive. Indeed, the British ground troops of XII, VIII, and XXX corps which were expected to drive 60 miles to the Rhine had very few supplies on hand when it started. The Allied supply situation was in a crisis because no ports had been captured and opened for shipping, meaning that most supplies still arrived over the beaches of Normandy and had to be trucked to the front. (A truck actually burned more fuel getting to the front than it could carry, meaning that one group of trucks had to carry fuel to forward stockpiles so that another group could carry ammunition and food to the troops.) The allies had left six divisions behind to use all of their trucks to haul supplies for other divisions. After the plan failed, the British would complain for decades that Patton had stolen supplies that would have made the difference, but in fact, the British actually did receive all of the supplies they calculated they needed. The Americans would complain that Eisenhower had told Montgomery to clear the Scheldt estuary first and then launch Market-Garden, orders Montgomery interpreted with great flexibility.

4. The plan was based on the assumption that the Germans were on the verge of surrender and collapse. Given what happened between Operation Cobra (25 July) and the first week of September, that was not an unreasonable assumption. The German western front had collapsed and their troops had run for the German border. The Russians had annihilated a third of the German forces on the Russian front between 22 June and early September. Just one more push, the theory went, and Germany would collapse. But the Germans were far more resilient than that, and had somehow managed to put together a defensive line in the West. (It helped the Germans that the British had twice allowed huge groups of German troops and equipment to escape traps, one at Falaise and the other at the Scheldt). Once the paratroops started landing, the Germans were able to call up huge numbers of Luftwaffe, Navy, police, reserve, training, and other troops and throw them into a ragged defense line. (These troops weren't that great, but against the lightly armed paratroops they did well enough for a few days.) Three key German armored units (9th SS, 10th SS, and 107th Panzer) were able to launch smashing counterattacks.
 5. The British tanks were supposed to reach Armhem sometime on D+3 or D+4 but actually reached the Rhine (at a different spot) only on D+9. There are no end of reasons why this happened. The American view that the British were just never in a hurry to attack is at least partly justified. (During all of World War II, British troops never displayed the sense of urgency that American troops sometimes did, and that German troops always did.) Some of the delay is attributed to the problems of shoving a major offensive up a single road surrounded by swampy land on both sides. Some of the delay was caused by stiffer than expected German defenses and counterattacks (although many British and American staff officers predicted that would happen and were ignored). The key point came when the 82nd Airborne launched a heroic river assault crossing in canvas boats. They captured the key bridge, but the British troops crossed the bridge and immediately stopped for the night. (The Americans and Germans in such a situation would have attacked immediately, no matter the odds or cost, and broken through the Arnhem.) The Germans (no fools at war) used the time to move more troops into position to block the British advance.

As with all military failures, there was no one single reason. Turning a blind eye to the two German tank divisions detected at Arnhem, expecting a German collapse, not enough paratroops to grab all of the bridges at once, and a slow-moving relief operation all contributed to a magnificent disaster that many predicted before it began.